Back To Work

This week, many people are returning to work after the break. It can be a struggle, so what's the meaning of work?

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Why do people work? And I don't just mean to secure money, which is clearly a primary reason. After all, remuneration can't be the whole story. People spend a great proportion of their lives working and if money were the sole reason - or perhaps I should say, when money is the sole reason - work depresses, alienates, destroys.

Thomas Carlyle, the Victorian essayist, realised as much. He argued that work should not be merely a matter of earning a living; the "cash nexus" as he called it. Carlyle thought work should not be so humiliating but should provide individuals with a sense of identity and purpose too. Ideally, it offers a social and moral framework.

Perhaps you feel your work does provide you with a social framework. It shapes the day and week. It offers friendship and comradery. It gives you a sense of place in society; a role.

Whether or not you feel your work provides you with a moral framework is another question. Many must feel that their work requires them to hang up their moral convictions in the office lobby, along with their coat. The result, though, is not just a gap between business and ethics. For the individual, it makes work literally demoralising. Working without a moral framework is quite as depressing, alienating and destructive as working for money alone.

Sigmund Freud had another idea. "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness," he wrote. It's relatively easy to see why love is such a cornerstone. But work?

By work, Freud meant our productive lives. That may or may not include paid employment. Being productive, Freud felt, is quite as valuable as having children: it satisfies the generative urge that surges through human lives. Our own existence is too small for us, so we long to be connected to more. That more may come via love in partners, families, friends. Or it can come via what we make in life, be that material goods, creative ideas, beautiful places, the person we become ourselves. If there is no such "work" in a person's life, they are again likely to feel the depression and alienation.

Another way of putting it is that work is not just about getting things done. It determines and shapes the kind of people we become in the process. That's why we have a sense of the kind of character who might be a lawyer or car salesman, a nurse or teacher. They may be stereotypes, but there's an important lesson to be learnt that our working lives are a major form of practice for our lives too. You become what you are. So what are you being asked to be at work?

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Mark Vernon

Psychotherapist, teacher, author

Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist, writer and teacher. He's written books on friendship, love, wellbeing, belief, spirituality, and the philosophy of the ancient Greeks. His articles and reviews on religious, philosophical and ethical themes have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. He leads workshops and groups for professionals interested in exploring the dynamics of transformation and inner life, and also regularly contributes to radio programmes and discussions, notably on the BBC. He has degrees in physics, theology and a PhD in philosophy. His psychotherapy practice includes working with individuals privately, in family constellation workshops, and at the Maudsley hospital in south London.


Go to the profile of David Head
almost 7 years ago
Interesting article Mark. I am reminded of the words of Oscar Wilde 'We become what we become by doing what we do' Many people reach a point of acceptance of what they do for a living but resent how their work has shaped them. The desire to grow and develop is strong and career change is one way to allow that happen.